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Japanese beat poet KAZUKO SHIRAISHI (b. 1931) is appearing in New York this week in conjunction with the release of the third book of English translations of her work, all by New Directions (in Japan her publications have appeared much more frequently). First came Seasons of Sacred Lust, in 1978, edited by KENNETH REXROTH. Its highly charged eroticisn garnered much attention, as did its reverence of jazz; reading deeper, Shiraishi’s nearly surreal imagery and wild juxtapositions proved highly evocative. Let Those Who Appear came out in 2002, proving that she had remained active and creative in the quarter-century interim; her focus had, on the evidence of its selections, switched to ecology. And now there’s My Floating Mother, City, which at first glance may be her most deeply personal and moving work yet.
I have not made it all the way through it yet, but want to mention it now so readers in NYC will be alerted to her two remaining appearances. I went to the first, Wednesday at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church on the Bowery, and was blown away by its intensity. She read the long title piece of the new book, accompanied by jazz trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist OKI ITARU; though she read it mostly in Japanese, we had copies on our chairs, and she threw in bits of English that made it possible to follow along in relative sync. It’s an extremely emotional poem inspired by the deaths of her mother and her peer and friend ALLEN GINSBERG, and others, and perhaps (since she is in her late seventies) increasing awareness of her own mortality. Her introduction, in English, set the stage, and then she read from a long scroll, her voice crackling with feeling. Between its universality (we have all lost people dear to us, have all regretted goodbyes not said in time, have all pondered our impermanence), its beauty, and her electric reading, I was brought to tears.
The rest of her reading also drew on My Floating Mother, City. “Can Can” and “The Tulip’s Ear” were read in tandem, first in their English translation (read by someone from New Directions whose name I didn’t catch), then by Shiraishi in Japanese. The short poem “Little Planet,” translated by Ginsberg, was read in English by Shiraishi herself.
ED SANDERS of THE FUGS read and sang before her, a mix of his own writing, a SAPPHO translation, and a WILLIAM BLAKE setting; he was occasionally amusing, sometimes moving, but mostly a bundle of now overly familiar tics. I should grant him more respect, I know; he was on the ramparts when I was a mere child – but for me the time/reward ratio of his reading was poor.
Tonight (Friday 1/30, 6:30) Shiraishi will be at Japan Society, reading with Itaru and participating in a discussion moderated by Forrest Gander. Saturday afternoon at 2 she will be at the Bowery Poetry Club, again with Itaru, who is quite a wonderful and imaginative player; also reading will be Beat legend IRA COHEN, health permitting, and STEVE DALACHINSKY, who will furthermore pitch in with Shiraishi on the English/Japanese tandem parts. I will be there.
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